Tethering all truth claims to physical evidence

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … all demonstrable truths
  • Knowing is … experience-based awareness
  • Learner is … an experiencer, inquirer
  • Learning is … deriving truth from experience
  • Teaching is … formatting experiences


Ancient (but the most influential formalized versions began to appear in the 1600s)


Empiricism is more commonly understood as a theory of knowledge than a theory of learning, but the line is often blurred in discussions of education. Empiricism states that knowledge comes from sensory experience, and thus emphasizes the role of experience and evidence. The “hard” version of Empiricism is associated with rigorous scientific research, and the “softer” versions are often encountered in theories of learning that emphasis inquiry, exploration, sense-making, and argumentation. Many varieties of Empiricism have been developed. Some with particular relevance to educational discourse include:
  • Aristotelianism (Aristotole, 300s BCE) – subject to quite varied definitions that tend to agree on two key elements: the truth is out there, and it can be reached through careful definition, observation, and demonstration
  • Phenomenalism (John Stuart Mill, mid-1800s) – an extreme version asserting that all physical forms are reducible to mental forms – that is, in essence, that physical objects are constructed out of one’s experiences
  • Logical Empiricism (Logical Positivism; Neopositivism; the Vienna Circle, early 1900s) – an attempt to mesh principles of mathematical logic with the conviction that sensory experience is the basis of knowledge, based on two main principles: (1) statements made in everyday language can be parsed into discrete units of meaning; (2) only statements that can be verified through direct experience or logical proof can be deemed truly meaningful
  • Pragmatism (Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, late-1800s) – an integration of basic insights of experience-based Empiricism with thinking-based Rationalism
  • Scientific Method has a range of meanings that coalesce around the project of Empiricism to develop increasingly powerful and useful interpretations of phenomena. Varying somewhat from one branch of science to another, common aspects of the Scientific Method across all domains are careful observation and rigorous skepticism. Within branches of inquiry that involve experimentation, the Scientific Method is typically defined to include the formulation of hypotheses, conducting of controlled interventions, and generation of replicable results. In popular terms – and especially prominent in contemporary school science – the Scientific Method is often reduced to a simplistic and rigid, step-by-step procedure that more resembles a recipe than engaged inquiry.


It is very difficult to incorporate Empiricism into a landscape of learning theories because it is taken up in so many different ways – sometimes as a description of individual learning, sometimes as a source of advice for teaching, sometimes as an argument for standardized practices, sometimes as a source of data to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of standardized education … and so on. Our placement of Empiricism on the map is based on a difference in meaning between empiricist (pointing to a belief system) and empirical (signalling the existence of tangible evidence). The belief system has traditionally been articulated in manners consistent with Correspondence Discourses.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Aristotle; John Locke; Francis Bacon; George Berkeley; David Hume

Status as a Theory of Learning

Empiricism is a theory of knowledge and knowledge production, and it is typically discussed at the level of entire fields of study. It has also been applied to individual learning, and many contemporary learning theories assume that the exploratory, sense-making activities of young learners are essential empirical – that is, they are very much processes of gathering, integrating, and generalizing from experiences. For that reason, it is fair to say that Empiricism has been engaged by many educators as a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Often, when Empiricism is invoked as a perspective on learning in education, it is in contexts focusing on influencing learning – in particular, through active, experience-focused, exploration-oriented activities. Concisely, then, within education, Empiricism is frequently engaged as a theory of influencing learning.

Status as a Scientific Theory

It might seem circular to argue that Empiricism is scientific. However, given the differences in meaning between empiricist and empirical, we have not afforded it full scientific status. Many versions and treatments of Empiricism are simply inattentive to assumptions and figurative frames. In fact, somewhat ironically, some treatments are inattentive to empirical evidence demonstrating issues with their interpretations.


  • Aristotelianism
  • Logical Empiricism
  • Phenomenalism
  • Pragmatism
  • Scientific Method

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Empiricism” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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